Universiteit Leiden

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Pim Rusch

Maritime historians and vocational college students together create historical database

What do you do when you’re suddenly given access to a whole lot of data but don’t know how to organise and analyse it? Maritime historians in the Faculty of Humanities joined forces with vocational college (MBO) students to build a database. ‘We’re so compatible with each other.’

About two years ago, Professor Cátia Antunes received an unusual message. Siem van Eeten, a citizen scientist, wrote to tell her that for many years he had been collecting seventeenth-century privateer dossiers. Might she be interested in the dossiers, which described whether the capture of a ship had complied with the proper procedures?

‘Cátia knew immediately that she wanted to make the files accessible,’ says Tessa de Boer, one of Antunes’ PhD candidates: the documents are packed with information that’s relevant to maritime historians, from the composition of the crew to the type of cargo. The only question was how to organise all the data: no one in the team had the skills required to build a database. ‘Then I suggested a partnership with MBO students at the Nova College in Beverwijk,’ Tessa recalls. ‘My younger brother had studied IT at the College, so we already had contacts there.'

Four talented first-years

This led to the privateer dossiers becoming a project for four talented first-year MBO students: Céline Bijtenhoorn, Alex Rasterhoff, Florian de Vries and Kim Quax. ‘By February we’d already finished the work assigned for that year,’ Kim explains, ‘so it was great that our instructor gave us a project to really get our teeth into.’

Our instructor always says: MBO students are real go-getters, they just get on with the job.

‘We were only first-years, so a long way from being experts,’ adds Florian. ‘But our instructor always says: MBO students are real go-getters, they’re people who just get on with the job.’ Before they knew it, they were up to their ears in cargoes and programming languages, which had to be brought together as a crystal-clear database.

At the same time, the Humanities students of maritime history received a crash course in working with data. ‘For us, it was highly instructive to see how many translation steps it takes to go from an archive document to a record on a website,’ Tessa explains. ‘You need a very good understanding of your data for that. Which ship does this sailor belong to? And if I know what his religion was, how do we link that? It was very interesting for us to think in this way, because we don’t usually do that in our normal work.’ Fortunately, they could always turn to Siem van Eeten, the citizen scientist who has been involved with the project from the start. ‘He was willing to go through the data, time after time, to check that all the facts were right.’

Top row: Siem van Eeten (citizen scientist), Tessa de Boer (PhD candidate), Tim Quax (ICT teacher at Nova College), Wouter van Hezel (ICT teacher at Nova College), Tristan de Boer (technical advice). Bottom row: Alex Rasterhoff (student), Céline Bijtenhoorn (student), Kim Quax (student), Cátia Antunes (professor), Florian de Vries (student).

Working together on something ‘supercool’

Finally, after endless modifications and trial runs, the time has come: on 22 November the students and Tessa’s team will together present a database that shows all kinds of data about ships at the push of a button. ‘We’ve created something that really works,’ says Florian. ‘That’s been good for my self-confidence, a confirmation that I can do it. And the fact that it will then actually be used is absolutely fantastic, of course.’

‘People often talk about the gap between vocational education (MBO/HBO) and universities, but we’ve shown that if you work together, you can achieve something supercool,’ says Kim. The students are therefore keen for the privateering project to keep going at Nova College. ‘We’ll move on with our studies,’ says Florian, ‘but the intention is for the website to become a kind of living project that’s always passed on to the new first- and second-year students, who will keep it up-to-date.’

‘Give them a call’

The University is also very enthusiastic. ‘We have plans to expand the database to include privateer dossiers from all over the world,’ says Tessa. ‘Projects like this are mostly found in faculties of natural sciences and medicine, but we’ve shown that this kind of partnership is also possible in humanities. If someone has a dataset and thinks: “the world needs to see this”, I would say: give these students a call. We can now do archival research so much faster; it really helps us to find better and more in-depth answers to research questions.’

The privateer database was partly made possible by Cátia Antunes’ Vici project Exploiting the Empire of Others: Dutch Investment in Foreign Colonial Resources, 1570-1800.

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